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Can we learn from my students about ground rules for public discourse?


I started teaching today. It is a team-taught class, “Great Issues,” required for all incoming MA students. It has both a lecture component where faculty take turns but also sections. Each faculty member meets with a small group each week (kind of like a TA) to discuss the topic of the week. It is thorny subject matter we tackle, and I want the discussions to be open to the gambit of views but also to be respectful of the intense feelings some have on particular concerns. So, one of the activities for the first day is brainstorming ground rules for discussions that are both open and respectful. This kind of discussion may be important on its own terms, but it is also critical to get students to really think.


Obviously, I could just hand out these rules. There are many versions out there. But I have found that if students have the chance to participate in writing their own, they are more likely to internalize and follow them.


As I was typing up their suggestions to share on a group document, I happened to glance at an NPR headline: “Big Oil companies are not meeting their climate pledges – and blocking new agreements”. It caught my attention because a rule that one group in my class had proposed was “Resist associating general categories with problematic (or beneficial) action, attend to specifics”. This headline was directly opposed to one of the rules my students had just suggested.


When we say “big oil”, we assume that all who fall in this category are mostly the same. But in answering the very first question that Ayesha Rascoe asks, Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University says, “There’s a lot of variance in the industry and it’s important to not paint with a broad brush.” In the same breath, though, he too moves to talk not about individual companies with problematic behavior, but “some of the more prominent energy companies” and their market share. The interview is interesting – and really more about the need to shape the market than about “big oil” per se but I can’t help thinking that the headline and orientation does little to foster the kind of discussion that causes people to think. We might learn something if we looked at what the variation is among companies, for instance.


Of course, NPR is not alone. Many throw around all sorts of general categories in public discourse all the time – big oil, big tech, woke liberals, far-right extremists, Islamic terrorists…I could go on. (I also wonder a little bit about whether us social scientists make it worse by encouraging attention to these general categories instead of particular behavior - but that is a reflection for another day).


What else did my students come up with?

-Approach with a spirit of curiosity

-Treat others with grace

-Be a good listener

-Contribute, but don’t impose

-Resist the making conversations a competition

-Don’t assume a comment indicates a belief; have a bit of a thick skin

-Repeat what you think you heard before you comment on it

-Remember, we are all evolving

-Have fun (even though we are talking about hard things, remember that we are all here because we enjoy the fun of learning)!


It’s not a bad list. But wow, the prevailing public discourse is practically the opposite of these suggestions. And, in fact, while many of us are very comfortable establishing rules like these in our classes, we treat this orientation as sappy or naïve when we enter conversations in the public sphere. I am not at all suggesting that academics – or stations like NPR, for that matter – are to blame for the situation we are in, but I do wonder if we could do more to moderate it.


In the meantime, I am reminded once again of why I love teaching.


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